Remembering the Legendary Joan Castle Joseff by Leigh Leshner

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Joan Castle Joseff was indeed a force to be reckoned with. Described in a New York Times article dating to 1950 as “a 100-pound 5-foot-2 brunette with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in psychology,” she was also a business woman, mother, philanthropist and political activist. When she passed away on March 24, 2010 at the age of 97, she left behind an incredible legacy reflecting a professional and personal life well lived.

Jewelry lovers know Mrs. Joseff as the owner and president of Joseff-Hollywood. In 1928, her late husband Eugene Joseff’s love of the movies ignited the spark that led to founding the company. Frustrated by seeing historically incorrect jewelry in films, Eugene’s friends in Hollywood dared him to do better. He took the challenge by creating one rhinestone bracelet and four buttons. With that success, more pieces were crafted and presented to the studios to accurately complement their costumes.

In the early days, Eugene designed and created all of the pieces himself. He had an extensive collection of old magazines and books, including a complete record of the world’s crown jewels and Harper’s Baazar magazines dating back to 1809, which helped him stay true to the historical period and location when designing for specific movies. Joan continued to use these as references later. He also created Russian gold plating for his pieces with a matte finish, making them perfect to shoot under hot lights as it reflected little to no glare off the metal. As the demand for his jewelry grew, Eugene hired a staff. At one time Joseff-Hollywood employed 50 people to fulfill the jewelry demands of filmmakers.

When handling the day to day business became overwhelming, Eugene called Sawyer Business School looking for a receptionist. They sent Joan over, and she began her Joseff career as a secretary. She eventually became the company’s office manager and a vital part of the organization. Working closely together, Eugene and Joan lived out their own Hollywood love story leading to marriage in 1942 and starting a family in October of 1947 when their son, Jeffrey, was born. Joan then retired from Joseff-Hollywood, while Eugene continued to run the company.

Tragedy struck this budding family soon after, however, when the plane Eugene was flying crashed on his way to the couple’s ranch in Arizona. He died in 1948 just short of his 43rd birthday. Joan was faced with either selling the company or stepping back into the business to keep it running. Having the same passion for jewelry as her husband, Joan decided to keep his legacy alive.

Though Joan didn’t have a design background, she positively loved jewelry. In a 1960 United Press International article, she expertly advised readers against being “stuffy and unimaginative” about their jewelry wardrobes. Her philosophy: the bigger the better! It’s not surprising that she sketched out her own ideas for designs and had her employees create them. Often, costume designers would come in with pictures or sketches of creations they envisioned as well. And like Eugene, Joan was a stickler for authenticity when carrying out these designs.

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At one point Joseff-Hollywood designed 90 percent of all the jewelry that was used in motion pictures. Most every starlet in Hollywood from the 1930s to the 1950s wore Joseff jewelry in the movies. Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly were just a few of the stars who adorned themselves in these magnificent jewels.

JOSEFF IN HOLLYWOOD

Joseff pieces were so admired by Hollywood’s elite, occasionally a piece would fail to be returned after a movie shoot. As New York Times reporter Helen Gould wrote in 1950, “Every so often a player becomes so attached to a piece that she neglects to return it. For this, Joan Castle has a stock formula: She simply bills the studio for $10,000 — and the jewel is soon recovered.” The figure rose over the years and by 1992 in an interview with The Independent of London, Joan was quoted as billing $50,000 for the same offense.

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More often than not, however, the stars either borrowed pieces to wear to high profile events such as the Oscars, or commissioned pieces for their personal use when they became enamored with them. Norma Shearer was so captivated by the heart-shaped ring she wore in Marie Antoinette, in fact, that she had Joseff make it in platinum for use as her wedding ring.

In the 1950s, Joan expanded the rental business to television. Among other shows, Joseff was an official jeweler for the television show “Queen for a Day.” Joan’s company provided the crown each “queen” would don and each winner also received a crown pin made by the company. These pins were marked “Joan Castle,” and were the only pieces Joseff-Hollywood ever produced bearing this mark.

As for the movie jewelry, the company has an archive of more than three million pieces. The archived pieces are not for sale, but they are often seen in museum exhibits in conjunction with Harrod’s in London, various museums in Barcelona and Milan, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Sciences. And true to their beginnings, Joseff-Hollywood is still renting jewelry to movie makers today.

At Joan’s direction, the company also branched out to create a retail line of jewelry that was sold in major department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, I. Magnin, Bullock’s, Neiman Marcus, Marshall Fields and Nordstrom’s. Based on an interview with Joan, The New York Times reported in a 1950 article, “as with everything seen on the screen, Joseff creations, too, influence fashion. The more successful pieces are adapted for the ‘commercial line’ – sold in one big store in each city.”

Today, the company’s lines can be found in small independent stores throughout the country. The company produces on average about 15 different designs each year. Some are completely new designs and some are reissues of older pieces. Joseff-Hollywood still has on hand a vast inventory of stones, findings and other parts Eugene purchased in the ‘40s, so they can still create much of the jewelry designed more than 70 years ago. Designs such as the cherubs, Sun Gods and bees have been in the line for decades and are a staple of the company.

Unfortunately, when collectible jewelry is popular and expensive, there are bound to be copies. Joseff-Hollywood pieces are no exception, and there are Joseff fakes currently on the market. Many of these are simpler, less ornate pieces that weren’t as time consuming to copy. To spot these fakes, look at the quality of the workmanship. For instance, the original Joseff Sun God brooch, which happened to be one of Joan’s favorites, was made in three pieces whereas the reproduction is made in one piece. Imitation is sometimes the sincerest form of flattery as even Joan herself owned a Sun God reproduction.

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THE WORLD’S LOVELIEST FOUNDRYMAN

In addition to the jewelry company, Joan Castle Joseff also ran the Joseff Precision Metal Products Company. The same Joseff foundry creating jewelry also created small metal parts for airplanes, brackets, and levers. When World War II broke out, Eugene enlisted as a glider pilot but he was discharged so he could serve his country by running the foundry to manufacture parts they needed for the military. When the war ended, the company continued to make jet parts and other products for companies such as Boeing, Lockheed, and Honeywell.

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When Joan took over, it was at a time when there were very few women running successful businesses, and this was especially true in the foundry business. In fact, a 1959 Los Angeles Times article referred to her as “unquestionably the world’s loveliest foundryman.”

According to Tina Joseff, Joan’s daughter-in-law and current general manager of the Joseff companies, in order for men to feel more comfortable working with a woman they often called her “J.C.” instead of Joan. Speaking as J.C., Joan told the New York Times in 1950: “Making precision parts and precision jewelry is very similar.”

J.C.’s OHER ACHIEVEMENTS

Joan was also very politically active. She served twice as a delegate and twice as an alternate to the Republican National Convention, and held the distinction of honored guest at the convention on another occasion. She was also chosen as the 2004 Businesswoman of the Year by the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Business Advisory Council and flew to Washington, D.C. to receive the honor, as mentioned in her Los Angeles Times obituary.

“The High Priestess of Paste,” as she was deemed in a 1990 People Magazine article, received many honors during her lifetime including:

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  • Women of Motion Picture Industry – Honorary Lifetime Membership
  • “Glamourous Career Woman” – 1958 Achievement Award
  • “Tolucan of the Year” – 1980 Bellamy Award
  • “Beautiful People Award” – 1978 and 1986 – Toluca Lake Award
  • Toluca Lake Chapter American Cancer Society – 1986 Honoree
  • Soroptomist International “Women of the Year” – 1988
  • California Federation of Republican Women (CRFW) “Women of Achievement” – 1990
  • CFRW Lifetime Achievement Award
  • National Federation of Republican Women Grand Patron – 2007

Joan Castle Joseff left behind a legacy that can never be duplicated. Her commitment to her business and personal life is one to be commended and admired. This heritage is continued today through her family members working for the companies, including Tina Joseff, and Joan’s two grandchildren, Jeffrey and Michele.

Leigh Leshner, author of numerous books on jewelry for Krause Publications, acknowledges the generous use of all photographs featuring Joan Castle Joseff and some of the numerous movie stars who wore Joseff creations courtesy of Joseff-Hollywood and Tina Joseff.

Individual jewelry featured in this article provided by Betsy Kemp of Linsy J’s Jewels and photographed by Jay B. Siegel of Chic Antiques by Pamela Wiggins.

To view more pictures from this article click here.